10 Ways to Help Parents Dealing With Autism

Alison Jean Thomas
Mother with daughter

Since 1980 when the term infantile autism was first included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), awareness of autism has increased, and people want to learn ways they can help parents dealing with their autistic children. If you know of a family with one or more children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you may be interested in giving whatever assistance you can to make their lives a little easier.

How to Help

Offering assistance is a delicate issue; you may hang back because you don't want to offend and end up feeling guilty that you aren't doing enough to help. This is especially the case when a child is involved. However, there are ways to support friends, neighbors, and relatives without butting in.

1. Learn the Basics

Unless you have already known or worked with kids suffering from ASD, find out what the term means before offering help. With background knowledge, you'll be able to comprehend when your friend talks to you about her child. You don't need to become a walking textbook--every case is different--but by knowing something about the basics, you won't make the mistake of asking superficial questions and can respond thoughtfully. Autism Speaks is an organization that gives an overall picture of what parents are going through as they come to grips with their child's disorder. It supplies step-by-step information, from recognizing ASD signs through diagnosis to treatments, and tells you the variety of types and levels of autism. Once you know a little about the subject, your friend will feel she is speaking to someone who understands.

2. Don't Change Your Attitude

When you learn your friend's child is autistic, treat that knowledge as a revelation rather than a shock. It sheds new light on the child's temperament, revealing why he behaves the way he does so you can learn to cope with his behavior in ways you couldn't before. His diagnosis doesn't mean he's different now than before you heard about it. The onus is on you to brush up on methods to deal with the child. Every ASD youngster has his or her quirks, the same as other kids, but once you understand the cause, you'll be able to help more.

The simple way to do this is to ask the parents. Since you have already learned the basics on ASD, discretely ask intelligent questions without causing offense.

  • Pose questions about the child's treatment, dietary habits, and improvements.
  • Learn his likes and dislikes in more detail than before and ask if there are things you should avoid, but don't treat him as a medical case.
  • Make note of small, encouraging improvements including the usual childhood milestones, such as changing his baby teeth.
  • Comment about how tall he's grown and what lovely eyes he has; these things are important to his parents.
  • Remember he and his family are still the likeable people you knew before the diagnosis.

3. Learn to Interact

For parents dealing with an ASD child, it's helpful when those around them know how to interact with their child. Autism Organisation UK has advice on difficulties people encounter communicating with autistic kids. It includes a list of tips, which will help you relate to ASD diagnosed youngsters so you understand them and, just as importantly, they understand you. You don't need to learn complicated skills. It can be as simple as:

  • Be face-to-face when talking or playing.
  • Speak slowly and use fewer words.
  • Use gestures and visual supports.
  • Motivate the child to ask for things.

Once the parents of an ASD youngster see you can interact with their child, you relieve them of the tiring role of interpreting everything he or she does.

4. Understand Stress

If the parents of an ASD child seem withdrawn, on edge, or inattentive when you speak to them, take into consideration they may be suffering from stress. Everyone complains of pressure from time to time, but parents dealing with ASD children undergo sleep disruption, worries about their child's treatment issues, setbacks to her progress, and concerns for her future.

In April 2009, Interactive Autism Network published its report, "Coping and Growing with Autism," in which parents of autistic children spoke about stress factors.

The report is divided into three areas:

  • Behaviors, such as erratic sleep habits
  • Finances and careers
  • Marital and relationship

It details the extent to which families dealing with an ASD child suffer from stress.

Show sympathy and understanding of the pressure they are under. Ask questions, even if you have no solutions and don't get upset if they seem preoccupied. Sometimes, just providing a sounding board or sympathetic ear is enough to make people realize they are not alone with their problems.

5. Offer Time Out

Parents of autistic children benefit from time separate from their kids to relax and be themselves. Think of all the times when, as a parent, you've felt the need to escape and have a couple of hours to yourself. An ASD child's parents appreciate time out to destress, and it's a way you can help.

Offer to sit for them while they take an evening off to see a movie or dine out. To the mother of an ASD diagnosed toddler or pre-school child, a trip to the beauty salon or clothes shopping is an indulgence that also offers a distraction from everyday concerns.

6. Help With Quality Time for Neurotypical Children

Parents who have an ASD child as well as neurotypical kids often feel guilty at not dividing time between all their children equally. Give them the opportunity to enjoy quality time with their neurotypical children. Autism Society describes some of the issues that arise in families struggling to ensure they spend enough time with all their kids. They recommend that not all leisure should be spent as a whole family. By giving parents the opportunity to take their neurotypical children out alone while you look after their autistic child, you are doing them a big service.

7. Offer Financial Assistance

Boy playing with blocks

An ASD child places financial demands on parents in several ways. Developing children need:

  • Treatments
  • Toys
  • Aids
  • Medications
  • Doctors' appointments
  • Education
  • Special dietary needs.

Furthermore, a family that formerly had two incomes may suddenly need one of the wage-earners to stay at home and take care of their child's requirements. That being the case, be aware the family may be struggling to maintain its standard of living and cannot enjoy the same leisure pursuits it had in the past.

The offer of financial help is a sensitive issue; however, there are other ways you can relieve the strain. Gifts may be appreciated; birthdays, Christmas, and special occasions give you the opportunity to help. You can offer:

  • Extra therapy sessions
  • Aids
  • Educational videos
  • Suitable toys

National Autism Resources has a comprehensive list of sensory comfort aids and gadgets for ASD kids that make excellent gifts. Free Videos For Autistic Kids has a selection of videos, ebooks, and other aids for a wide learning level and age range, or you can purchase or rent for your friends from Watch Me Learn. You can also gift toys for children with autism. Giving these will not cause offense. Ask your friends first to ensure you get gifts suitable for their youngster.

8. Call From the Store

If you know the parent of an autistic child finds it difficult to stop by the store to pick up some groceries, phone to ask what he or she needs. She may be embarrassed to ask you to make a special trip, but if you mention you're already there, she'll probably find there are items she requires. This is an easy kindness that means a lot to people. Your friend benefits in so many ways. She saves time because she doesn't have to dress and transport her child to the store, neither does she need to worry about poor behavior, and she gets to pass the time of day with another adult. Drop the goods off on your way home and if she suggests coffee, make the time.

9. Advocate

You can learn about advocacy at Autism Speaks. Its section covers federal and state initiatives, and legislators.

10. Events

Marathon runners

Autism Speaks helps you show support by taking part in one of the many events that raise ASD awareness. As well as participating in sponsored walks, you can ride, swim, or help in other ways. Donate or start a tribute. Alternatively, hold a fundraiser of your own.

Ready, Steady, Go

These are just the first ten ways you can assist parents you know who are dealing with an ASD child. Use them as a starting point to give you ideas. No matter how small your offer of support seems, the fact you are trying to help will make a difference.

10 Ways to Help Parents Dealing With Autism